We Are A Much Better Country Than This

Where are our community leaders — and not just our political leaders —  when asylum seekers and refugees, the most vulnerable people on earth, are subject to such misinformation, prejudice, vilification and exploitation in an election campaign? We are surely a better country than the present “debate” suggests, writes John Menadue

Our media, and not just our tabloid media, have largely gone missing on this sensitive issue. The ABC television news and current affairs that I watch have been unprofessional in allowing misinformation about asylum seekers to fester. They obviously work on the assumption that if there are no pictures, like asylum seekers coming as ‘tourists’ by air, there is only news if they come by boat. But the facts as reported by the Australian Parliamentary Library show that the large majority of asylum seekers come by air. Apparently many come from China, who then make bogus claims concerning religious persecution. The ABC doesn’t think that issue is worth exploring

Where have our church leaders been — who are so vocal about the rights of the unborn, but careless about the rights of live refugees in desperate situations? What was that story about a family 2000 years ago who fled for protection to Egypt?

Where is the Jewish community — which has suffered more than any other group in history from persecution and have been forced to flee, often forced to pay people smugglers or brokers along the way?

Academics have given us their expertise on the economy and global warming, but scarcely a peep out of them on the denial of human rights to refugees. They allow the lie to persist that asylum seekers are “illegals”.

The business sector supports high migration levels, but is unwilling to face down the exaggerated claims about asylum seekers flooding Australia, and so seriously setting back the case for immigration. Only 1 per cent of our migrant intake are asylum seekers/refugees. We are not being “invaded” by asylum seekers as Tony Abbott wildly and unscrupulously claims.

The overseas development agencies ask us to help people in developing countries, but say little about the enormous burdens that refugees place on poor countries such as Pakistan, Syria and Jordan. When disastrous floods strike the outcast and marginalised have no margin of safety.

Government officials seem incapable of putting out easy to understand, factual, information, eg that asylum seekers to Australia are miniscule compared with asylum seekers seeking entry to the United States, France and the United Kingdom.

With a few notable exceptions, like the AWU, the trade union movement has also been silent.

Letter writers to newspapers trot out again and again the need for refugees to wait in the queue. But there is no queue worthy of the name. There are 42 million forcibly displaced people in the world, including at least 15 million refugees recognised by the UNHCR. If a person claimed refugee status today with the UNHCR, it would take 130 years for that claim to be considered. Some queue!

We are all naturally cautious about newcomers, people who are different, the “other”. It has not all been trouble free, but we have a proud record of settling 700,000 refugees in Australia since 1945. We can look back with pride on our acceptance of refugees and their enormous contribution to Australia. We need more risk takers — and refugees, by definition, are risk takers.

We don’t need charismatic or authoritarian leaders to make the ‘right’ decisions for us. We need adaptive leaders who can help us all support necessary but hard decisions. We need leaders of such quality across our whole community who can appeal to the better angels of our nature.

Surely we are a much better country than the present debate on asylum seekers suggests. We all have a responsibility to right the wrong that we are doing to extremely vulnerable people.